The clearest point Robert Lepage makes with his set - a square stage (the 'masculine') joined by a long conveyor belt to a round stage (the 'feminine') - is that people should communicate. It must be money for old rope for the French Canadian theatre and opera director, who did the muddy A Midsummer Night's Dream at the National. Still, if the symbolism was obscure, you could always treat it like a Michael Jackson concert and enjoy the technological gimmickry. Gabriel didn't have a jet pack, but he did seem to take off for a moment during the obligatory Brooding Silhouette sequence. He punted 'Across the River' by way of the conveyor belt to perform 'Shaking the Tree' (large tree pops up), followed by 'Blood of Eden', for which he moped about in a melancholy paradise with the returned O'Connor.
Fortunately, whatever plot development there was supposed to be was soon lost, and one could concentrate on the songs as individual pieces of music. Gabriel held the focus well. He was a pleasure to watch, with his black clothes and with his rather thespian gait, but his voice was the real delight. Even after doing his strange hopping dance with the guitarists, he still had breath enough to draw his notes out, phrase them accurately and indulge his wide melodic range. Coupled with his big ideas, he gives the eerie impression of singing not from the chest, or even from the nose, but from the brain itself.
As rock-boffins go, Gabriel's work is a lot more approachable than, say, Brian Eno's. There is a cool steadiness to his music, even the funky 'Sledgehammer' and the U2 pomp of 'Secret World', in which the superb David Rhodes, veteran of seven Gabriel albums, made the guitar attack look effortless. Gabriel likes to play with technology, but most of the songs on US are about 'relationships'. At one point during the shuttling between the two stages (the struggle to communicate, remember), he disappeared, leaving his image on the huge screen. He reappeared wearing a gadget you might find in an Innovations catalogue: a video camera strapped to his head, pointing back at his face. The idea (Lepage's) was to make palpable the concept of self-scrutiny, about which he was singing in his bloke-in-therapy song 'Digging in the Dirt'. In reality, all you got were shots of his fillings; the overall effect was to make him look like the big-nosed one in The Who.
Further trickery involved the band vanishing into a bottomless flight case. They nicest touch came when they reappeared, having picked up the support artists Papa Wemba and Ayub Ogada along the way, for an encore of 'Biko' from under the large dome that had descended on to the round stage. From the first pod-like phone box to the final flying saucer, it was reassuring to know that the grand tradition of live rock 'n' roll is safe in someone's hands.
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